PARIS: Syria’s Western-backed opposition came under steely pressure Sunday to attend peace talks in just over a week, as envoys from 11 countries converged to try and restore the credibility of a rebel coalition sapped by infighting and indecision.
The meetings in Paris came just over a week before the scheduled talks in Switzerland, as the Syrian National Coalition nears collapse, its influence eroded by the chronic discord, international pressure and disagreement over whether to negotiate with President Bashar Assad.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joined 10 other foreign ministers to urge Ahmad Jarba to deliver his coalition to the Switzerland talks and finally meet face-to-face with the government it hopes to overthrow.
“Personally, I’m confident that the Syrian opposition will come to Geneva,” Kerry told a news conference in Paris with his Qatari counterpart.
He said attendance was a “test of the credibility of everybody.”
The meeting was clearly aimed at bolstering Jarba’s credibility ahead of a vote Friday on whether to go to Switzerland on Jan. 22. The 14-point declaration released Sunday states unequivocally that its goal is to allow the Syrian people “to control its own future.”
Jarba put the best face on the group’s precarious position, indicating that he had been reassured by the tone of Sunday’s discussions.
“We all agreed that there is no future for Bashar Assad and his family in Syria,” he said.
“His departure is inevitable.”
Jarba has previously called for Assad to stop using heavy weapons, lift sieges on a number of opposition-held areas and allow the opening of humanitarian corridors as a show of good faith ahead of any talks.
But opposition sources said attempts by rival factions in the coalition to reconcile on the sides had made “little progress.”Within Syria, the moderate rebels say the coalition-in-exile is little help as they find themselves battling on two fronts – against Al-Qaeda linked militants on one side and Assad’s forces on another. One brigade after another has broken with the group, calling it out of touch with the harsh reality of the war that has killed more than 130,000 people.
Assad himself has said there would be no discussion of giving up power, throwing the entire premise of the peace talks into doubt. The rebel groups with the most men, arms and territory reject any idea of an armistice.
“As the weaker party, they could agree to things that are not in our interests. And most of them are exiles, or have been outside the country for such a long time now that they don’t even feel the suffering of their people,” said Abu al-Hassan Marea, an activist from Syria’s northern city of Aleppo, which has seen near-daily combat for months as rebels and the government fight for control. “If they agree to things that we don’t approve of, it will be betrayal of the revolution.”
The indecision and weakness of the Syrian coalition also has tested the patience of its backers, including the U.S.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the talks were the only hope for a political solution, “the only prospect that can lead to a true solution.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the coalition had, in fact, agreed last fall to attend the meeting, but since then has reconsidered as the result of renewed violence and brutality he blamed on the regime.
“We are working very hard, and he is working very hard to convince the Syrian National Coalition – all of the members and also on the ground – to participate,” Davutoglu said in a brief interview at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris, where Kerry was meeting with some of the envoys.
In Damascus, the Syrian president put on a show of confidence, making a rare appearance Sunday to attend prayers at a mosque in the capital Damascus, state television reported.
Assad, who has only been seen in public a few times since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011, was shown at the Al-Hamad Mosque in the capital’s northwest for prayers marking the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad.
Marea, the Aleppo activist, predicted that if the peace talks happen “it will be a disaster” for those suffering in Syria’s civil war.
“The regime must be called to account for its crimes, and the government to replace it should be one that all the people want,” he said.